Sunday, November 11, 2007

Where have all the girls gone?

Namita Kohli, Hindustan Times
Email Author
Haryana/New Delhi, November 10, 2007

Faced with a crisis, even local elections have candidates promising brides in return for votes.

"My kismet brought me here,” says 14-year-old Heena, who’s come to ‘sasural’ in Malabnuhu — a sleepy village in Haryana’s Mewat region — from Kolkata. Originally from Bangladesh, the teenager can only blame destiny now. Last year, after a sum of Rs 6,000 changed hands, the ‘bahu’ found herself in an alien landscape: where Bengali is replaced by Haryanvi, rice by roti — and where cattle costs more than women like her, who are referred to as paros by the locals.

In the prosperous districts of Haryana and Punjab — where son preference has resulted in a skewed sex ratio — girls from economically weaker backgrounds in Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal are being openly bought in droves for ‘marriages’ that are more often than not without the consent of the girl. The legal status of such wedlock, of course, remains questionable. According to data compiled by Shaktivahini, a Faridabad-based NGO that takes up anti-trafficking issues, there are up to 50,000 paros in Haryana alone, including a huge proportion of minors.

Census 2001 shows that the child sex ratio in Haryana and Punjab stands at 820 and 793 per 1,000 boys respectively. But according to the latest health survey by the Punjab government, villages like Sansarwal in Patiala have touched an alarming 438 girls per 1,000 boys.

Ergo, girls are fast turning into a vanishing tribe. A recent United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report warns that female deficit in the marriageable age (20-49) is set to touch 25 million by the year 2030.

The impact, however, is already being felt here. Says Dr Madhav Mohan Godbole, the director of Balgrah, a rehabilitation centre in Rai, Sonepat, “Villagers come to us and plead for brides. They say if we can’t fix them up, they will be forced to buy girls.” Faced with a crisis, even local elections have candidates promising brides in return for votes. Ram Prasad of Seoti village in Sonepat, concedes, “frequent trips are being made from all over Haryana to hunt for girls in Bengal, Orissa, Jharkhand and even Maharashtra.”

In a typical ‘buying’ scenario, someone with ‘contacts’ in source states facilitates such arrangements in return for kharcha-paani, explains Rishikant of Shativahini. The ‘going rate’ ranges from Rs 6,000 –10,000, depending on the age and virginity. Forced by poverty, many a time the paros also have to ‘accept’ polyandry.

Interestingly, parents of local girls are now spoilt for choice. No one wants a poor or unemployed groom, says Akbar Ahmed of Malabnuhu. Neither are they willing to send their girls to the land of paros.

Post-Marital Blues

Gradually, the cultural impact of these forced marriages is surfacing. Meena, 30, a paro from West Bengal bemoans, “Men here don’t know how to behave. Their language, attitude are very brash.” The women’s movements are kept under ‘close watch’ and they aren’t allowed to visit home for fear that they might escape. “But at least there’s food to eat here, else why would we come so far,” sighs Mamta, a ‘bride’ from Bihar.

Even so, there are ample stories of abuse. Ameena, 13, was sold to a 35-year-old widower Ashok in Seoti, who was desperate for a bride. It didn’t matter even if she was a minor. “Ashok would lock me up in a room, beat me up and sexually abuse me. He wouldn’t let me talk to my mother,” recalls Ameena, who tried to escape a couple of times, before being rescued by Delhi-based NGO Prayas just last month. “He was so much older, and there was a lot of communication problem. So I was just supposed to say yes to whatever he demanded.”

Ameena’s was the first case of trafficking registered in Haryana, as women seldom register complaints due to social pressures. “There’s no complainant, no accused,” laments Sibhash Kaviraj, SP of Mewat. A local police official in Seoti says, “How can we go about breaking homes? Unless villagers inform us of such incidents, our hands are tied… it is their personal matter.” While many like Chandigarh-based Professor Pam Rajput, vice president National Alliance for Women (NAWO), have been advocating frequent compiling of relevant statistics and sensitising both men and women, the administration has clearly, been slow to deal with the issue.

Meanwhile, the chain continues to grow. As the UNFPA report states, it is the poor and landless men who will be most affected by this bridal crisis. Evidently then, 35-year-old Anwari who was, many years ago, married to a man 20 years older than her in Malabnuhu, is worried for her four boys. “They don’t study. Maybe, I will have to buy brides for them also.” Already, across Haryana and Punjab, it’s a common refrain, “Who wants to give girls to poor men like us?” To which, one Ram Dulari of Seoti chides them: “Who will, when you foolish people kill your own girls?”

(Some names have been changed)

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